Republicans were quick to distance themselves from the Nevada rancher after his remarks about slavery, but he points to a deeper issue with conservative policy.
It’s tempting dismiss Cliven Bundy – the Nevada rancher who last week suggested that blacks were better off under slavery – as a fringe conservative unworthy of any more airtime. But his remarks provide a window into the underbelly of today’s conservative movement and are worth a closer look.
Bundy was a little known entity until earlier this month when his two-decade long refusal to pay cattle grazing fees escalated into a face off between his own armed militia and agents from the Bureau of Land Management. The episode launched him into the national spotlight and endeared him to conservatives like Senators Rand Paul and Dean Heller, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, among others.
Bundy capitalized on his moment in the spotlight to expound on the grazing rights of his cattle, abortion, and slavery. He suggested that government subsidies have caused “negroes” to abort their “young children” and “put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” He went on: “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Conservatives scrambled to distance themselves from Bundy by denouncing his comments as offensive and racist. But they were rather quiet on Bundy’s characterization of the safety net as a modern form of slavery. Their silence reflects a common ideology uniting conservative politicians to the likes of Bundy, one that lays the blame for poverty squarely on the shoulders of poor people – particularly poor people of color – and the government programs meant to support them.
And it’s hard to argue that the GOP’s recent social policy proposals aren’t fueled by the same fire that propelled Bundy’s diatribe. Rand Paul has equated universal health care and government programs such as food stamps to slavery. Congressional candidates from North Carolina to Arizona have argued that entitlement programs are simply a way for government to assert power over the people. Paul Ryan, whose latest budget slashes spending for Medicaid and food stamps, has warned that the safety net is on the brink of becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Mike Huckabee suggested that by supporting mandated contraceptive coverage, Democrats were suggesting women needed “Uncle Sugar” to control their “libidos or reproductive system.”
These notions have motivated conservatives’ strategic dismantling of the social safety net. Cuts to food stamps, with more to come should Paul Ryan have his way. Refusal to participate in Medicaid expansion, leaving more than 3 million low-income people uninsured. Rejection of the minimum wage increase. Opposition to extending federal unemployment benefits. Repudiation of equal pay measures. The imposition of funding cuts and regulations that have shuttered women’s health clinics across the country. And a government shutdown spurred by opposition to the ACA, specifically the law’s contraceptive mandate.